Terrell Jermaine Starr is a reporter for Foxtrot Alpha, a blog that covers defense, technology and policy.
When I was growing up in Detroit, my high school teachers acclaimed Ben Carson as a role model, a man whose success my black classmates and I should strive to emulate. “Gifted Hands,” his 1996 best-selling book, was required reading for students at Northwestern High School who, like myself, wanted to “be somebody.”
But for all of the praise Mr. Carson has garnered for his professional achievements as a brain surgeon, his greatest selling point among conservatives is his refusal to challenge institutional racism.
Like Mr. Carson, I was raised by a single black woman in Detroit who stressed the need for hard work and education. But that is where our similarities end. For Mr. Carson, our hometown is useful only for street cred: It is necessary personal background to prove that it’s possible to make it out of poverty and succeed through the power of one’s own will. But to me, the lesson of Detroit is that a black middle class can rise only by fighting racist policies intended to keep affordable housing and education off limits to minorities.
As Mr. Carson testified this week at Senate hearings on his selection by President-elect Donald Trump to be secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development — an agency with the task of expanding access to stable and affordable housing — I thought about how that history seems to have made no impression on him.
The middle class is never built from nothing. American prosperity grew after World War II because federal subsidies made it cheaper for families to own homes and for veterans to go to college.
Black Americans, however, were specifically denied mortgages and many benefits of the G.I. Bill, among other opportunities that led to upward mobility. That black families still managed to thrive despite the decades of ghettoization that resulted from this exclusion — not to mention from segregation, violent discrimination and slavery — is a miracle.
But progress didn’t come out of nowhere.
The auto industry slowly integrated, and Detroit’s black middle class began to grow in the 1950s and ’60s. But it wasn’t until Coleman A. Young became Detroit’s first black mayor in 1973 and forced the Detroit police force and other city departments to diversify that black people could finally pursue careers that white power brokers had long preserved for themselves. At one point, Detroit was home to the nation’s “most affluent African-American population with the largest percentage of black homeowners and the highest comparative wages,” according to David Goldberg of Wayne State University.
The decline of the auto industry and the 2008 housing crash hollowed out these hard-won achievements. After the financial crisis, Detroit had one of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation. Across the country, subprime loans had been disproportionately peddled to black and Latino families — even the wealthy ones — specifically because banks had long ignored them.
Once again, housing became neither stable nor affordable for many black families, who were disproportionately affected by terrible government policy — or in this case, the lack thereof.
Mr. Carson said nothing about this — or anything about the legacy of discrimination in housing — during his Senate confirmation hearings. As he has consistently made clear, he believes it is time for Americans to “move beyond” race.
How is this the man to lead an agency responsible for rooting out racial discrimination in housing?
But in another sense, Mr. Carson is a perfect pick for a president-elect who has been sued for housing discrimination himself. He can serve as the black face of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” while absolving white conservatives of the need to acknowledge that black people were rarely allowed to pull themselves up in the first place.
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I know what it is like to be on public assistance. My grandmother hated it and got us off it as soon as she could. But life was tough. She moved from Greenwood, S.C., to a segregated Detroit where she and her children were forced to live in separate and unequal housing, only to be confronted with extreme violence if they didn’t stay in their place.
There is a body of research that shows that racist urban policy decided my grandmother’s fate — not her own free will. That she was able to raise me to work hard and do my best despite that racist policy doesn’t give me, or any black person, the license to ignore the history of policies that were intended to keep us poor and keep us out of the white professional circles that we may nonetheless navigate as adults.
Mr. Carson seems to have internalized something else: that to curry the favor of white conservatives who prize his black skin, he must dissociate himself from black realities.